Beating Gridlock

May 07, 1992

Fuming rush-hour commuters in Baltimore County may be mollified a bit by the news they are getting to work a little more quickly than they did 10 years ago. Not much more, and it's unclear why. The latest census estimates that mean travel time to work for Baltimore countians dropped from 25 minutes in 1980 to 24.2 minutes in 1990. This in spite of the fact that substantially more of them are driving alone in their own cars: 77 percent against 67 percent 10 years ago. And fewer proportionately are using public transit despite the advent of Metro: 4.2 percent compared with 5.1 percent a decade ago.

This is bad news. You don't need to be bumper-to-bumper on the beltway to know that key arteries in the metropolitan area are increasingly congested. What's worse, state transportation planners estimate the tie-ups will get far worse in the next 20 years even with the expenditure of billions of dollars on improved highways and transit systems. If planned construction does not materialize, commuters could find themselves spending 33 minutes for a typical trip in 2010 that would have taken them 26 minutes in 1985.

A comparison with Montgomery County is instructive. Its working population increased more than four times as fast as Baltimore County's yet its relative reliance on public transportation rose while Baltimore County's fell. This also meant longer commuting time for Montgomery residents: One of the drawbacks to public transportation is that it usually takes a little more time than driving a car. But there can be greater paybacks in cost, a more pleasant commuting lifestyle and preservation of the air and greenery that attract people to the suburbs in the first place.

Most striking is the way Montgomery County clusters businesses around its Metro stops. That's no accident. Montgomery has tied its developers to mass-transit facilities much more strictly than Baltimore County or, for that matter, probably any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

Increasingly, suburbanites work there, too. If it becomes convenient enough for them to use mass transit, they will do so in time. Intra-county transit in Baltimore County has not been successful largely because origins and destinations are too dispersed. Yet the time is not far off when commuters will be clustered on mass transit -- or they will be gridlocked on the beltway.

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